Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Decline and Fall of the ABC

The ABC is Australia’s only source of news and current affairs which is independent of government and commercial interests. With media ownership concentrated in the hands of a few powerful interests, this role is vital to the future of our democracy.

So say defenders of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This role is indeed vital to the future of our Democracy. But how independent is the ABC these days? The Australian public expect neutrality from the ABC and is under the impression that they get it. This makes the ABC's betrayal of its ethical standards and apparent breach of its code of practice (see previous post) a heinous betrayal of its audience's trust.

The Republican advert masquerading as a news item in the ABC's political news feed is not the only instance of political bias at the ABC in recent months.

The ABC, taking a leaf out of US station NBC's book recently declined to allow two seperate documentary film makers from using excerpts from its programmes that in one case exposed a right wing lie from former defence minister Peter Reith and in the other cast Immigration minister (of the time) Phillip Ruddock in an unflattering light.

Ironically it was the ABC programme MediaWatch that exposed this scandal. Its good to know that there is a small corner of the ABC that is still upholding its claim to political and commercial neutrality, but for how much longer?

Here is the transcript from the MediaWatch programme:

Political archives and ABC integrity :: 23/08/2004

We work for the ABC and a few weeks ago we took our organisation to task for refusing to sell a documentary maker footage like this –

I have not seen it myself and apparently the quality of it is not very good and its infra red or something, but I am told that someone has looked at it and it is an absolute fact, children were thrown into the water.
-Peter Reith on ABC Radio 774,
10 October 2001
-Watch Video »

According to Robyn Watts - the ABC's director of enterprises - Peter Reith himself had to OK the use of that footage, because the documentary maker was producing

…a political statement …
Robyn Watts to Media Watch,
30 July 2004
Read Robyn Watts letter

In fact, a documentary about
Australia's treatment of refugees called Punished not Protected made by Judy Rymer.

Robyn reassured us the ABC's refusal to sell Rymer footage was a very unusual case. A one off - but that's not quite right.

After our earlier reports on this scandal, Liam Ward - also making a documentary on refugees - told Media Watch he'd wanted to buy this audio grab from the ABC.

Damien Carrick: So we're talking about people who will receive ongoing rolling temporary visas who will never normalise their status here in Australia, will never be able to have family join them out here. That's going to mean a permanent population of people who are second class citizens.

Philip Ruddock: It might well do that.

Damien Carrick: But Minister, we're making, as you say, second-class citizens out of these people.

Philip Ruddock: That's right.

Damien Carrick: That's out of people who are bona fide refugees, even under the very proscribed system which you're allowing them.

Philip Ruddock: That's right.
-The Law Report, Radio National,
2 October 2001

Ward rang the ABC the week before Easter and then sent emails on the 8th, 13th and 14th of April, spelling out his request for the tape with increasing urgency.

Sorry to sound pushy, I'm just feeling the deadline looming.
I really appreciate any help you might be able to offer…
-Liam Ward email to ABC tape sales,
14 April 2004

The ABC replied that his request was under review, so he phoned to find out what was happening.

According to Ward, an ABC staffer told him he wouldn't be getting the audio.

I asked why not, and he dodged about, almost as if he didn’t want to answer.
Finally I asked “is it some kind of legal thing?”
He answered with “that’s the one.”
Liam Ward email to Media Watch,
28 July 2004

Ward's half hour documentary "Refugee - a recipe in six steps" tells the story of his friend "Ali's" escape from Taliban
Afghanistan to Australia. It's a film that promotes a cause - that makes a political statement.

When are we getting our freedom you know? How long for is this detention?
Always we are asking about our visa and DIMIA they are saying “Your visa has begun process, process, process. F**k this process”
-Refugee – A Recipe in Six Steps
-Watch Video »

Ten days ago we wrote to Robyn Watts asking why the ABC didn't supply audio of Philip Ruddock to Liam Ward.

She replied –

The ABC has no record of refusing to license the audio excerpt from Radio National’s Law Report to Mr Ward.

The ABC did receive the request from Mr Ward, however, as he was not clear about what usage rights he required …the matter was referred to ABC Legal for opinion as to which license agreement should be used.
Robyn Watts letter to Media Watch, 13 August 2004
Read letter

We postponed our story to investigate further and lodged an FOI application for the ABC's files.

Last week we received a second letter from Robyn Watts.

You are entitled to seek access to the file under freedom of information provisions…
However, I do wish to add to the answer I provided you regarding this matter on 13 August.
The staff member who upwardly referred this request did so on the basis of his concerns in relation to clause 2.2 of ABC Enterprises Licensing Terms and Conditions.
Robyn Watts letter to Media Watch, 18 August 2004
Read letter

Just a reminder - clause 2.2 is the ABC's new rule giving politicians a veto over the use of ABC material in cause related programs.

This makes her first reply look rather misleading.

Robyn's second letter continued –

When ABC Enterprises Policy Manager reviewed the request he did not consider that clause 2.2 applied at all. He referred the request to ABC Legal because of licensing issues…as I stated in my earlier letter.
Robyn Watts letter to Media Watch,
18 August 2004

By the time it was referred to the lawyers, Ward's deadline had expired and he'd been told he wouldn't get the audio.

Though Robyn Watts insists-

… at no point was Mr Ward refused licensing…It is regrettable that he did not receive a formal reply to his request…Should he contact the ABC, the material would be licensed without qualification.
Robyn Watts letter to Media Watch,
18 August 2004

And so it should be. But why not licence material for Judy Rymer's “Punished Not Protected” which was made with the same political purpose?

Robyn Watt has insisted she refused to sell ABC content to Rymer

…to protect the editorial integrity of the program material.
Robyn Watts letter to Media Watch, 23 August 2004
Read letter

We've been at this for a month now and we still can't get anyone to tell us how requiring, say, Peter Reith's OK to sell footage of himself, does anything but undermine the editorial integrity of the ABC.

Managing director Russell Balding backed
Watts in this letter to ABC journalists:

The overarching consideration in this instance was to protect the integrity of the ABC and its reputation as an impartial and independent public broadcaster...
I do not think it is appropriate for the ABC to officially license its content so that it may be used politically.
-Russell Balding memo to ABC News and Current Affairs staff, 9 August 2004
Read memo

Russell you've got it wrong.
This new policy of introducing politics into commercial decision making doesn't protect the ABC's editorial integrity or its independence.

ABC staff is nervous, the film industry's up in arms and what's more, Russell, it's costing the ABC money.

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